The Cat Came Back
Irina Rempt
The Cat Came Back

The old tomcat must have died. I used to greet him every day on my way home from the office, as he sat in the bay window of the corner house in all his ginger-striped glory. I haven't seen him since I'm back, not for four days now. He must surely have died. Too bad that I'll never find out for sure. I can't very well ring the bell and ask “Whatever happened to your tomcat?”

Well, why can't I?

I ring the bell. A woman answers the door, middle-aged, worried. Could be me in ten years.

“Mrs Rowlings?” I've read the nameplate.

“Yes, I'm Phoebe Rowlings.”

“Excuse me,” I say, “I've been passing your house almost every day for three years and I've grown fond of your cat.” Eek, wrong opening. She might just think I want to buy him. “Erm - I haven't seen him for a while and I wondered if he's all right.”

She doesn't burst into tears, not exactly, I'll grant her that. “Well -”

“Hm?”

“Well, you'd better come in. It's kind of complicated.”

She herds me into a room and disappears into the kitchen. “I'll make a cup of tea.”

I take in the room. It's pleasant, not too tidy, enough books, framed photographs of teenagers and weddings and babies, one of a youngish man that looks to have been taken ten or fifteen years ago. A widow with grown children.

She brings the tea. “You'll probably think I'm crazy,” she says.

“Most people who say that are not.” I say yes to milk, no to sugar, sip the tea. I can hear the cogs in her head whirring.

“You won't believe me.”

“It's my job to believe things.” Do I give her my card? Not yet. Give it a bit of time, even though my professional nose has started twitching.

“Well, the fact is...” She pauses, sips her own tea. “The fact is that Percy's been kidnapped by aliens.” She is clearly surprised by my lack of surprise. “Really. I saw them do it.”

“What did they look like?”

“I couldn't tell. They were wearing spacesuits or something. Looked like - well, the size of that little table only with a lot of arms, or they may have been machinery.”

“Mechanical arms, you mean?” I'm taking notes now, on the pad that has miraculously transferred itself from pocket to hand. I've been at this for three years. I have reflexes.

“Yes -” More wheels turning. “You don't really believe me, do you? You think I'm crazy after all.”

“As I said, it's my job to believe you.” If I'd been Charlie, I'd have said 'madam'. I hand her my card. She reads it. It says 'AISA Alien Investigation and Support Agency' and my name in smaller letters.

Phoebe looks from the card to me, from me to the card, frowning. “Are you a Woman in Black?”

It's hard to keep from giggling, because I am in fact a woman in black just now, but I know what she means. “Not really, not that way. We're not big on the support part. Yet.” And we don't make people forget what they've seen, but help them cope by themselves. Charlie's choice, one that I agree with or I wouldn't work for him. Anyway, we don't have the technology. “It's more like a detective agency. Any unusual event that might have to do with aliens, we investigate.”

“So I hire you and you find Percy for me?”

“You commission us and we try to find out what happened to Percy. We're government-funded, we're not really for hire. It won't cost you anything, but I can't promise results.” She nods, biting her lip. “I'll have to call my boss, we always work together.”

I take out my mobile and punch Charlie's shortcut. Bleep. Bleep. It takes ages. Bleep. He answers. He knows it's me, nobody else has that number.

“Charlie, I've got another catnapping. Old ginger tom called Percy. Yes, the same. Foot and a half high, lots of mechanical arms. One witness, a sensible woman. You might as well come over.”

Charlie is one of those very black men with very white hair who keep looking seventy from fifty-five to ninety. He's not particularly large or handsome, but impressive all the same. If Phoebe thought we were Men in Black, she can think again: he's wearing faded blue jeans and a fire-engine red jacket. He's courteous as always. “Good afternoon, madam. I'm Charles Holt, AISA. Please call me Charlie.”

“Did they - did they take other cats as well?” Phoebe asks. “Was that what you meant on the phone when you said 'another'?”

“Several, in fact,” Charlie says, “your cat is the third this week. All in this neighbourhood, and every one by the things with mechanical arms, as far as we know.” He drinks his tea, probably without tasting it. I've known Charlie long enough to know when he's on to something. “We can't possibly watch every single cat.”

Phoebe bites her lip again and screws up her eyes. “What if everybody watches their own cat?”

“That's the idea, madam.”

We knock a pamphlet together that says just enough. Phoebe knows where the other cats live. We put it through letterboxes. We wait. Phoebe goes to the Chinese takeaway, too excited to cook.

Night falls. We sit in the dark. Nothing happens for hours.

Just as I start thinking we might as well go to bed, there's a small sound at the window. Phoebe starts, touches my arm. “It's them,” she whispers. The window opens, without anything obviously opening it. Something metallic and slightly luminous clambers laboriously over the sill, either a robot or a creature in a metal suit. It's about a foot and a half high and it has at least half a dozen appendages to walk, climb, and hold things. It's using two of them to hold something. It's holding a cat basket.

It puts the basket on the floor and opens it. There's obviously a cat inside, I can see its round eyes shining yellow, but it doesn't come out. “Percy?” Phoebe calls softly. The cat pokes its head through the opening: a greyish tabby.

Phoebe is beyond fear, even beyond anger. “You've got the wrong cat,” she says to the mechanical alien. “Better take that where it belongs and come back with Percy. And while you're at it, I think there's someone else you should bring back.”

“Make that two,” Charlie says. I've never heard his voice sound like that. The mechanical alien moves back a bit, like a double take in a silent movie. It turns to Charlie, and though it doesn't have anything remotely like eyes I know it's looking hard at him. Then it climbs back the way it's come and the window closes, without anything obviously closing it.

See, I know Charlie used to be married. I've seen their wedding pictures, taken in the sixties, and some taken a few years later; he has them in the office. But then they stop. He talks about her - in terms of 'Hazel and I used to'. He never talks about what happened to take her away from him. I never thought it might be that, though it's logical, of course. That's why he started AISA.

We sit in the dark. Nothing happens for hours. Then there's the sound at the window again. It opens, without anything obviously opening it, but this time what climbs in is not a foot-and-a-half metallic thing with lots of arms, but a middle-aged man in clothes very much out of fashion, carrying a cat basket. He helps someone climb through, an elderly black woman in a flowery dress.

I go to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.